Why context is important

Earlier today I saw the following tweet sent by the account of one of India’s preeminent newspapers:

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The fact that 1 in 4 people in the world’s most technologically advanced country had no knowledge of one of the primary tenets of science came as a shock to me, as it did to everyone else reading it. To get a bit of context, I searched for the original data obtained through a questionnaire on general awareness by the National Science Foundation of the United States. It is available as part of a very interesting report here.

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I haven’t had time to digest all of the data yet, but it seems that a very large proportion of people worldwide who are literate (by the standards of the general definition) are scientifically illiterate. It turns out that Americans, or at least those surveyed did not do as poorly on many questions as those in other parts of the world.

To me at least, what seemed most worrisome with respect to the United States were the two questions in which it fared the worst – tied to evolution and the acceptance of the Big Bang theory. I’m not aware of any conservative organization in the US which promotes geocentricism, but I know of many in this country which take the immutability of the humans species and the creation stories of the Abrahamic religions at face value.

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Is objectivity in science possible?

Most scientists will tell you that the fashionable field of philosophy of science has failed spectacularly to influence how practicing scientists work or to provide any clues to the operation of any part of the universe. Nowhere has the clash been as obvious as on the battlegrounds of epistemology, which is concerned with the nature and possible extent of knowledge. Leading philosophers have taken, for lack of a better term, a philosophical stance that the true extent of knowledge can never be known; they remain skeptical that a scientific framework for integrating the physical laws of nature (especially those concerning quantum mechanics and relativity and gravitation) or for understanding consciousness in purely physical will ever be feasible. Regardless of what we think of individual theories, I think it is important to consider, in broadest possible terms, what exactly is the extent of knowledge:

Recently, in reading Nobel Prize-winner, theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg’s excellent book Dreams of a Final Theory, I came across the following passage:

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Basically, what Weinberg is  saying is that the laws of nature are independent of the mode of discovery and that there actual is such a thing as objective knowledge.

A few days later, I came across a diametrically-opposite viewpoint propounded by eminent philosopher, Nicholas Rescher, who has the view that there is no objective science. We only have “our science,” by which he means a human science, primarily lead by the Western scientific tradition. He further theorizes that any other science, and especially that of a possible intelligent civilization would be vastly different, because it would be “their” science.

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So, who is correct?

For what it is worth, there is really no way to disprove Rescher’s idea which uses deductive reasoning  or to prove to Weinberg’s idea  which uses inductive reasoning. Rescher’s thesis that there is another science  will always be feasible, because we will continue to be humans, and his underlying deductive principle that humans cannot know any other science will be valid. On the other hand, Weinberg won’t ever be able to prove that science is objective. Just because everything we know up to now seems to support our assertion of an objective truth, doesn’t mean that what we will learn later will necessarily support this theory. Note how Weinberg builds in a “fail-safe” to his argument: everything we know is part of current objective knowledge; however, as our own knowledge changes, there will be “tweaks” to our objectivity.

Of course, given the logical foundations of these two viewpoints, the jury might be out for a very long time on who is correct.

(OK, I’m not going to hedge my bet on this one, though that would be the safe and easy thing to do especially when the alternative involves contradicting a Nobel Prize winning physicist. But, you already know from my last blogpost that I prefer deductive reasoning to inductive reasoning.)

Perceptions are landscapes. Memories are works of art.

I was not feeling well. In a feverish delirium, and for no apparent reason, I began to recall a house I often visited in my childhood. I remembered that when I last visited this house, it seemed greatly in need of repairs. The family that lived there had fallen on hard times. It seemed that over the course of fifteen years of use, the house had worn down quite a bit. I was disappointed because I was remembering a place as it was and comparing it to an ideal vision deeply embedded in my memory. But what shook me the most was that the house seemed smaller than I had remembered it. How could that even be physically possible? Surely, the outer dimensions had not changed? Were there more people and objects inside making the dimensions seem different? Or had my own perception of it changed? Perhaps, both were true.

Memory is a hostile witness. I first saw the Grand Canyon on a cold morning when I was nine. It was a different Grand Canyon from the one I saw decades later, even though I could trace landmarks I had seen the first time. The basic assumption I make every is that the world changes interminably, but my memory is perfect. But where are the benchmarks to compare against? Proteins decay. Neurons find new connections. Memories are mutable. I change every day. How can I truly conclude that I’m even the same person after all these years?

And it is not just me. Stars exist as celestial bodies in three dimensions. We see stars in the sky in two dimensions in relation to other stars. We arbitrarily connect stars to form constellations. By finding patterns, we influence what others see in the sky as well. Meanwhile, the stars drift away. They burn out. The relation of memories to objectivity is similar.

Then again, what exactly is an objective world anyway? An objective experience cannot occur, since everything that happens must be subjectively compared to an earlier experience, either personal or learned, to make any sense of it. Every perception is filtered through senses and through the capacity for thinking. There are various wavelengths of light that correspond to what we call colors, but we cannot say objectively that colors exist beyond collective human thought. The other senses fair even worse. Henri Poincaré was singularly insightful when he said that objective reality was that which had been determined by the consensus of several thinking beings. In other words, there is no “reality” devoid of individual cognition and there is no “objectivity” apart from the rules which are agreed upon by our fellow humans. A frog in a well can know that the world is the well, but cannot know what lies outside of it. That is the sum of human experience.

But as sobering as this thought is, possessing a feeble intellect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Even with an unreliable memory and limited capacity for thought, there is much to be learned. There are commonalities we can find with each other and with our planet. Every emotion is a gift. Perceptions are landscapes subject to shifts in weather. Memories are limited works of art. Endowed even with an idiosyncratic wellspring of consciousness, life is a beautiful thing.

On missing my favorite holiday

Im staring out the window at the grey sky and the leafless trees. I take a sip of tea to soothe my raspy throat. I have been congested for the past week, but it is just as well that I can steal a few moments before I head into another marathon meeting at work. This is mildly depressing. This used to be my favorite day of the year. This used to be the day I looked forward to the most.

 I remember how Saraswati Puja, the day when we all got together to celebrate wisdom, used to be. I remember heading out on a rickshaw with baba to school-bazaar the night before to pick out a painted clay murti of the goddess. The face always used to be covered with newspaper, only to be revealed at the time of worship. One the way back, we would stop at a fruit-sellers to pick up oranges, bananas, and kul (which we were told not to eat before Saraswati Puja).

 The morning of Saraswati Puja, after a bathing, I would wear a dhuti and a panjabi and get ready for the puja. Up until my late teen years, baba used to perform the puja, but armed with a panji and a book of Sanskrit hymns, I took over shortly thereafter. That was one of the appealing aspects of Saraswati Puja. All of us knew the vandana and the arati. Worship of the Goddess of Learning was an unpretentious affair that happened in thousands of households like mine. You did not need to go to a neighborhood puja mandap to offer your respects like you would for Durga Puja or Kali Puja, although you might receive an invitation to attend Saraswati pujas at your own school or college. Indeed, Saraswati was a member of the family who visited every year: her blessings and aspirations in granting us knowledge through books and through music were as genteel and meekly bourgeois like we were.

 Every year on the day of the puja, I would place my textbooks at the feet of the goddess and it was the one day in the year when not studying was socially sanctioned (with the convention being that if you studied on Saraswati Puja, you lost whatever little knowledge was in your possession). Of course, you had to be selective about the books that you chose because you couldnt just dump them all there. After all, the space at the feet of the goddess was prized real-estate and there were other people in the family too. I seem to recall always picking particularly tricky subjects like mathematics and physics, though whatever blessings I got from the goddess helped little during my exams. Perhaps there is wisdom in not doing well in exams? Maybe that was the lesson for me.

 Cutting the fruits was a very important job, and one that my grandmother, starting at the crack of dawn, would cheerfully take on each year. After the puja was completed, it was acceptable to consume the prasad of cut fruits. Only after everyone had consumed the prasad, and by that time it was likely late afternoon, could you venture outside to see the other para and public pujas (often with socially relevant tableaus). It was the one day in the year, when all the girls wore saris and some of the foolhardy boys (and you can count me in this group) wore dhuti-panjabis. Otherwise, we never thought of Saraswati Puja as an equivalent of “Bengali Valentine’s Day,” though I hear it is often marketed as such now.

 Ironically, it was after I went abroad to actually gain further my education that I became disconnected from Saraswati Puja altogether. The last time I celebrated in 2000 was special in many ways. It was the last year my extended family was together in the home we lived in to celebrate, and it was just before my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer. 

 Ultimately, Saraswati Puja, like all important holidays, is about family. It is worth celebrating, even if you have to make modifications suited to your current life. I cant celebrate today because Im about to head to a meeting, but I can defiantly mumble the hymns while I blankly stare at a presentation in a conference room. And the weekend is only a few days away. Maybe this year we will place some of our books in front of an image of the goddess on a tablet.

A horror story

– Can you tell me a scary story today, baba?
–Do you want to hear about demons? Perhaps, villainous creatures that lurk in the night?
– No, those are all boring. Can you tell me something that is really horrifying?
– Yes, I think I can.
–Does this story have ghosts?
– No, this story is even more frightening than ghosts, because it is real. Let me tell you a secret first. Everything you see around you seems to follow certain predictable laws that you’ve been observing since you were born.
– And?
– And, today I am going to tell you that these laws work, but that they are not always true. What you have noticed in your life has been by a process we grown-ups call inductive reasoning. It is something a very bright man by the name of Sir Isaac Newton used to describe the world. He saw the world pretty much the same way that you see it.
– If he was a smart man, then why isn’t what he saw true?
– Well, there was another smart man, Albert Einstein who said that notions like space and time are connected and our observation of objects and time depends on how fast we are moving.
– I am not moving!
– I hate to disappoint your worldview, son, but we are all moving. You, me, the earth, the sun, the galaxy, the stars.
– That’s not too scary, I guess.
– Wait, there’s more. At another level, there are another set of rules that are the opposite of what even Einstein thought. And people call this quantum mechanics.
– I don’t much care for names. Why should I be scared of this?
– Because this is a real world around us. It is hidden to our eyes, because it is very tiny.
– Smaller than my Lego parts?
– Smaller than your Lego parts. These are, in fact the smallest parts. And there is even a small piece of light called a photon.
– If these parts are so small, how do I know they are there?
– That is because we can see what they do and smart men can do sums that show they’re there.
– Huh… but baba, why is this scary?
– Because in this world, things can be at multiple places at the same time, until you look for them. And then they show up in one. And then when you try to describe one thing, it affects some other different thing at the other end of the universe at the same time.
– But how can something be at more than one place, baba? How can it change something else far away?
– No one knows. Another smart man, Erwin Schrödinger tried to explain quantum theory by saying that there was a cat that was both dead and alive.
– How can a cat be both dead and alive? What will I see if I look at the cat?
– Well, if you look at the cat, it will be either dead or alive. It will be both until you look at it, then it will become either. At the same time you look. Not before. Not after.
– How is all this even possible?
– Because you are part of the story. That is the truly scary part. There are many reasons people give. Some people say that this is just the way it is. Some people say there are infinite parallel universes. Some people can do sums about wiggly strings that look very hard, so they must be on to something.
– So, what you’re saying is we don’t know?
– What I’m saying is we don’t know.
– I’m scared. I want my ma.